Gun Movie Classics: Thief (1981)
This was Michael Mann's first Hollywood movie, and one of James Caan's personal favorite performances.
This movie doesn’t make its way to many Top 10 lists or get a lot of love, but it’s really worth a look. If you’re a fan of heist movies and crimes movies, you’ll get a lot of out of Michael Mann’s 1981 directorial debut starring James Caan. Thief is about Frank (Caan), an experienced jewel thief who works for himself and has set up a nice front life to hide the crimes that truly fuel his lifestyle. He owns a bar and a car dealership, which he uses to launder the money he makes by selling stolen gems, so he stays of the police radar. If you’re a fan of the Ed Norton, Robert DeNiro heist movie, The Score (2001), you’ll notice a lot of similarities here.
In a lot of ways, Thief is the first time Mann told a story that he retold more completely with his landmark film, Heat (1995). DeNiro even borrows Caan’s speech patterns as Frank for his character in Heat, who is also an ex-con and an expert thief. Both characters use contractions very sparingly and speak in a slow and deliberate manner, almost as if they don’t want to have to repeat themselves.
Both Thief and Heat share similarities of character, theme, plot, and slang, but they also share an extreme level of attention to detail when it comes to firearms and shootouts. A segment of the climactic shootout in Heat was actually used in part of a U.S. Marine training video for a time, to illustrate a proper speed reload with an AR-platform carbine.
Frank – James Caan
As the story goes, Michael Mann is a bit obsessive when it comes to details, especially concerning firearms. Any fan of Heat knows that. So, Mann, who is reportedly a certified range instructor, wanted James Caan to attend Gunsite Academy, which was then known as the American Pistol Institute, the training facility founded by Col. Jeff Cooper in the Arizona desert north of Chino Valley.
Caan was supposed to learn the “Modern Technique of the Pistol,” but Cooper wasn’t on board. He reasoned that Caan’s character, a career criminal and a thief, wouldn’t be exposed to the Modern Technique in real life and decline to teach Caan.
Instead, Galen D. “Chuck” Taylor, Cooper’s operations manager at the time (he would go on to be a well-known instructor himself), agreed to teach Caan, but only off-site. The actor got a crash course in the fundamentals of the Modern Technique, which comes across pretty obviously in the movie.
Caan uses an exaggerated Weaver Stance and a high-thumb grip on his 1911 pistols. We see him perform room clearing techniques and speed reloads, which are definitely performed the Gunsite way.
In fact, in Caan’s subsequent movies, you can see the training stuck, as he uses the same stance and grip pretty much whenever he holds a gun on screen.
The first gun Frank uses is a long-slide M1911A1 pistol with a six-inch barrel that was customized by California gunsmith Jim Hoag, according to imfdb.org.
We can see a long vertical cutout on the skeletonized trigger. That means the gun was most likely a Colt Gold Cup National Match at its birth—or Hoag just used the trigger from a Gold Cup.
Hoag lengthened the slide, squared the trigger guard, added a Bo-Mar adjustable rear sight, a skeletonized hammer, and a beavertail grip safety. All indications are that the gun is chambered in .45 ACP.
Frank uses only 1911 pistols throughout the movie, and his high-thumb grip and Weaver stance remain constant. Though his carry method of tucking his gun in his waistband doesn’t match his attention to detail when it comes to gun handling.
In one scene, we see Frank perform a brass check (pulls the slide back a bit to make sure a round is loaded in the chamber) on a Colt Gold Cup NM. This gun magically transforms to the longslide 1911 in the next scene, but it’s the brass check that’s interesting.
He puts the thumb of his support hand inside the trigger guard and uses his left index finger to pull back the slide from beneath the barrel. When this movie was made, this was actually a method that was taught, but no longer, mostly because it involves getting your fingers in front of the muzzle of a most likely loaded firearm.
It’s also worth noting that this brass check, also known as a press check, wouldn’t even work with a 1911 with a full-length guide rod and wouldn’t work on most modern semi-autos either.
The way to correctly to perform a press check is to grasp the slide from the top with the support hand, either at the rear or by the front serrations behind the muzzle, and pull it back just enough to visually inspect the chamber.
When Frank retrieves his longslide from a hidden compartment in the door of his car, we also see a Colt Combat Commander. We again see the Commander when Frank flashes it at a nightclub bouncer (who is played by a young William Petersen, who could go on to star in Mann’s Manhunter).
He’s also seen with it later in his car lot, but never gets to use it as he’s knocked out by a mobster with an M1 Carbine.
Like the longslide, this Colt has a Bo-Mar adjustable rear sight and a custom skeletonized hammer.
Barry – Jim Belushi
In his first film role, Jim Belushi plays Frank’s sidekick Barry. When Frank goes to meet with Leo and Attaglia at the harbor in the first act, Barry is seen covering Frank from a distance (remember the meeting in Heat at the abandoned drive-in?) with an Heckler & Koch HK91 rifle.
The HK41 and, after 1974, the HK91 is the semi-auto version of the H&K G3 battle rifle that was produced form the civilian market beginning in the 1960s.
The gun was a primo rifle in 1981, but these days it would be a high-priced rarity. It’s estimated fewer than 400 HK41s were produced an even fewer were imported to the U.S. Today they sell for anywhere between $3,000 and $6,000 depending on condition and demand. An original 1966 model with the push-pin hole in the receiver can sell for as much as $9,000. Adding to the rarity, most of these guns were used as hosts for full-auto conversions prior to the May 1986 machine gun ban. These converted HK41/HKG3 rifles can sell for more than $20,000.
The Bad Guys
This movie was also the first film appearance for Dennis Farina, who was still a cop when he played the small part of Carl. Farina worked for 18 years as an officer with the Chicago Police Department before becoming an actor and ironically playing a number of mobsters, as well as police officers.
Carl comes at Frank for the final shootout at the dealership with an interesting gun, a High Standard Model 10 shotgun.
The Model 10 is a bullpup, gas operated, semi-auto shotgun with a distinctive rotating shoulder stock and an integrated flashlight.
It was designed in the late 1950s by Alfred Crouch, a Santa Monica police sergeant as the ultimate entry shotgun for SWAT and tactical units. Crouch sold his design to High Standard in the mid 1960s.
The shotgun was adopted by a few police departments, as the concept was sound, but the gun had problems. It had a tendency to fail to cycle correctly and could only be used with magnum or high brass shells. Even with the correct ammo it could still malfunction.
The trigger was also a mess, as triggers for bullpups often are. The integrated flashlight and its batteries also had a tendency to become damaged during recoil.
Leo (Robert Prosky) uses a Smith & Wesson Model 19 with distinctive pearl grips at the end of the film when he is cornered.
The S&W Model 19 revolver is made on S&W’s K-frame and is chambered for .357 Magnum. The K-frame is somewhat smaller and lighter than the original N-frame .357, usually known as the S&W Model 27.
Retired Assistant Chief Patrol Inspector of the U.S. Border Patrol, famous gunfighter, and noted firearms and shooting skills writer Bill Jordan consulted with Smith & Wesson on the design and characteristics of the Model 19.
Attaglia (Tom Signorelli) carries what looks like a Smith & Wesson Model 19 Snub Nose in the film. It’s usually tucked in his waistband or being waved around, so it could be another silver revolver.
We see him draw the snubby revolver after he’s knocked out by Frank.